(Beyond Pesticides, October 22, 2012) A lawsuit challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) practice of permitting genetically engineered (GE) crops on wildlife refuges was dismissed by a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The suit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), the Center for Food Safety (CFS), and Beyond Pesticides, charged that FWS unlawfully entered into cooperative farming agreements and approved planting of GE crops in 54 national wildlife refuges in various states without the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and in violation of FWS policy.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg in Washington, D.C. rejected the plaintiff’s arguments, ruling that the “agency’s actions were not arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law.” The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which oversees 150 million acres of refuges, allowed farmers to plant GE corn and soybeans on a limited basis in eight Midwestern states. The plaintiffs — Center for Food Safety, Beyond Pesticides, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Cornucopia Institute — claimed the decision violated environmental law. Farming has long been used on national wildlife refuges for multiple purposes like habitat restoration, which involves destroying invasive species to make room for native plants. However, in recent years, refuge farming has been converted to GE crops because the agency claims GE seed is the only seed farmers can obtain today. These GE crops are mostly engineered for a single purpose: to be resistant to herbicides, mainly Monsanto’s ubiquitous Roundup. Because the crops are tolerant to herbicides, their plantings lead to more frequent applications and increased amounts of toxic herbicides. This overreliance on herbicides used in GE cropping systems has fostered an epidemic of herbicide-resistant “superweeds” in the past decade as weeds have mutated. A study by University of Notre Dame, scientists found that streams throughout the Midwest are contaminated with GE materials from corn crop byproducts, even six months after harvest. While the long-term health effects of consuming GE food are still unknown, GE crops are known to contaminate conventional non-GE and organic crops through “genetic drift” and take a toll on the environment by increasing resistant insects and weeds, contaminating water and affecting pollinators and other non-target organisms.
Earlier this month, a study published by Washington State University’s research professor Charles Benbrook, PhD, reported that the use of herbicides in the production of GE herbicide-tolerant crops -cotton, soybeans and corn- has actually increased, producing resistant weeds, contrary to industry claims that the technology would reduce pesticide applications. This year, Beyond Pesticides wrote to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the introduction of new varieties of GE crops was “severely misguided and lacking forethought.” Plans are in the works to introduce 2,4-D GE corn into the environment thereby creating a new generation of resistant weeds, leaving a legacy of resistant “superweeds” and a retrogression to even more toxic herbicides to control these weeds. 2,4-D, which constituted half of the ingredients in “Agent Orange,” used to defoliate forests and croplands in the Vietnam War, is a chlorophenoxy herbicide. Scientists around the world have reported increased cancer risks in association with its use, especially for soft tissue sarcoma and malignant lymphoma.
FWS officials in the Midwest were aware that refuges in eastern states had been sued over allowing GE crops on these protected lands, and developed an environmental assessment of the practice. This was the third in a series of lawsuits filed by PEER and CFSchallenging FWS’s practice of permitting GE crops on wildlife refuges. In 2009 and 2010, the groups successfully challenged approval of GE plantings on two wildlife refuges in Delaware — Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge — which forced FWS to end GE planting in the entire 12-state Northeastern region. In settling the suit, FWS promised to revoke any authorization for further GE agriculture at Bombay Hook and the four other refuges with GE crops: the Rappahannock River Valley Refuge and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Refuge, Montezuma Refuge in New York and Blackwater Refuge of Maryland, unless and until an appropriate NEPA analysis is completed — a condition that has yet to be met for GE agriculture on a National Wildlife Refuge. The federal government would not agree to end GE agriculture in refuges nationally, which prompted new litigation in other regions where as many as 75 other national wildlife refuges now growing GE crops are vulnerable to similar suits.
The agency originally preferred taking no action, which would have allowed GE crops to continue being grown in refuges for multiple purposes. In the final version of its environmental analysis, FWS instead chose to only allow transgenic crops to be grown for five years per tract, and only for habitat restoration objectives. This lawsuit challenged that the agency’s analysis did not adequately consider the impact of increased herbicide usage on water and endangered species. It also argued the analysis should have more closely looked at possible development of weeds resistant to glyphosate herbicides and cross pollination between transgenic and conventional crops. This suit hoped to enjoin the cultivation of GE crops in the Southeast Region until and unless a new approval decision is made based on a rigorous review of all potential impacts in an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), as required by NEPA. Meanwhile, unless practices and FWS policy on the refuges change, the plaintiffs will continue to challenge the cultivation of GE crops on refuges across the country.
Judge Boasberg found that the FWS sufficiently studied these concerns and countered the arguments with scientific studies and mitigation measures. “FWS’s conclusions may not be what plaintiffs wish, but it cannot be gainsaid that they took a hard look at the issues,” the judge said.
Currently, there are commercially available Roundup-tolerant seed varieties for corn, soybeans, canola, sorghum, and cotton, in addition to sugar beets, and recently USDA-allowed Roundup-tolerant alfalfa. Due to serious questions regarding the integrity of USDA’s environmental evaluations, public interest groups, led by the Center for Food Safety and including Beyond Pesticides, have filed suit against the agency to stop its full deregulation of GE alfalfa.
For more on genetically engineered agriculture read Beyond Pesticides’ article “Ready or Not, Genetically Engineered Crops Explode on Market” on our Genetic Engineering program page.
All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.